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Tuesday, October 20, 1998 Published at 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK


Cemeteries pollute water supply

The long-term effect of decomposition on water is unknown

A team is investigating the extent to which decomposing human remains pollute water supplies.

Bob Harris explains the research on BBC Radio 4
Studies from overseas suggest that chemicals from corpses seep from cemeteries and contaminate nearby water.

However, there is no firm evidence as to how much this occurs in the UK.

Now the impact on UK ecosystems is being examined by a team from the Environment Agency and the British Geological Survey.

Planning agencies looking at applications to build housing near cemeteries need to consider the extent to which decomposing bodies contaminate the water supply.

Contamination directive

The group aims to guage the effects of graveyards on water supplies to make sure that local authorities can enforce a European Union directive concerning the quality of groundwater, which is due to come into affect next year.

[ image: Various sources pose a risk to groundwater]
Various sources pose a risk to groundwater
The team says that a strong base of scientific knowledge is required to ensure compliance with the directive.

They have chosen an area close to a disused medieval cemetery for their study.

There is unlikely to be much microbiological contamination from the site because it has been out of use for so long, but the researchers hope to gain useful clues in the form of chemicals.

The team removes core samples of the soil and sends them to laboratories for analysis.

Pollution risks

Bob Harris, a member of the investigating team, said: "Cemeteries are just one of several particular activities which could give rise to groundwater pollution.

"To be sure we need to have the scientific advise and understanding in order to determine whether these things present a risk or not."

Mr Harris admitted that people's first concerns about living close to a cemetery are unlikely to be whether or not the water is good for their health.

"We cannot take into account people's reaction to the fact that graves can be a little spooky," he said.

"But what we can do is give a little reassurance about the risks to groundwater pollution and to the users of that groundwater in terms of whether they may be drinking contaminated water or not."

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